"She wants to see me?" Yuki asked as steam wafted off of a bowl full of noodles before her.
Even though my wallet was getting lighter, I didn’t think it was a good idea for Yuki to be doing all the cooking and cleaning with Lady Hisui’s pending announcement hanging over her head. So with some coppers and barely two silver taels to rub together, it was off to one of the food stalls near the market for dinner.
"Yeah- not just you, but Shimo and some others, too.."
"What makes you say that?"
"There was another Ryu at the temple- Hisui introduced her to me as her niece. I heard Lady Hisui ask her to retrieve information from the last census about all Shirohebis in the prefecture."
A look of concern was etched on Yuki's face. Not exactly an encouraging sign, since I was hoping that she might be able to tell me what was going on.
"Did she say why?" Yuki asked.
I shook my head 'no'. "Honestly, I was hoping that you’d have some idea."
"I wish I knew what to tell you...." the beautiful serpentine miko sighed before helping herself to some more noodles. "But I'm at a loss."
Damn it- even devouring noodles, she still somehow manages to look dainty and refined. The noodles disappear with a barely audible slurp
After giving it some thought earlier, it seemed like those requests from Lady Hisui had nothing to do with our recent indiscretions on the temple grounds, but beyond that it was a complete mystery to the two of us.
The frustrating part was that it really was difficult to try and reassure Yuki when the fact of the matter was I had precious little idea of what was going on myself.
I had already put in an appearance at the tavern on my way back from the temple the other night and although Inken was nowhere to be seen, I left word with the others that Lady Hisui was seeking consultation with him.
But something was still bothering me.
Not once did Lady Hisui tell me not to worry. If she had told me it was nothing to be concerned with, I would’ve been content to leave it at that. I trusted her judgement enough in the short time since I had met her. However, the businesslike tone from the normally casual and informal dragon along with the lack of any reassurances from her led me to believe whatever she had to tell Yuki, Shimo and the others was pretty serious.
"She couldn't possibly be retiring, could she...?" Yuki pondered out loud.
I was about ready to dismiss the notion out of hand when I realized that might've been the most logical guess based on what little information the two of us did have. Perhaps the younger Ryu was present to take over Hisui’s obligations- even if it was only on an interim basis. Still, it seemed as though the Ryu did genuinely love her job along with all the perks and responsibilities that it entailed and was nowhere near ready to call it quits.
"Maybe- but we probably shouldn’t jump to any conclusions." I said, finishing up the last skewer of hatsu yakitori
“Well clearly it’s an announcement important enough that she wants all the shrine maidens- past and present- to hear it.”
“You mean going through the prefectural census records?” I ask.
Yuki nods. “I don’t think she’s getting remarried, either. It’s not as though the temple has been turning away potential suitors for her lately. Even if she were up for it, she’s been too busy with her other duties.’
And those ‘other duties’ probably had everything to do with tomorrow’s announcement.
I wasn't sure what else I should do or say to Yukihebi to reassure her when I felt a weight around my leg.
It was her tail.
"Hanta, dear....I'm chilly." Yuki pouted as she slowly coiled her lower half around me.
"Seems like you're always chilly these days." I tease.
"The nights are getting cooler lately. I can't help myself..."
Well- good thing I don't have to be anywhere anytime soon I reasoned as I made myself comfortable in the serpent girl's embrace. I suspected that her tail was no longer sticking out into the street as more and more of it was beginning to coil around me.
“Hanta….have you ever been to Ezochi?” the serpent girl asks almost drowsily. To the best of my knowledge, Ezochi were the furthest north inhabited islands in the Zipangu archipelago.
“I don’t think I’ve ever gone that far north.”
“You know there’s no Shirohebis in Ezochi…..the winters are far too cold.”
“An island without beautiful and enchanting shrine maidens? Sounds like hell on earth.” I muse as I gently stroke her hair.
“Maybe we could go up there if Lady Hisui refuses to take me back….” she whispers as more of her lower body continues coiling around me. “But you’d have to keep me warm like this all winter long. And winters can last up to five months up there….”
“I’m not really seeing a disadvantage when you put it like that.” I chuckle.
It absently occurs to me that Yuki looks as deliriously happy as she does because she’s seated on one of stools closest to the grill and is basking in its ample warmth.
The serpentine miko continues.
“They say that there are hot springs up there, too. But I don’t think I’d be willing to leave them all winter long- although….” I could feel the muscles in her serpentine lower body softly flex and almost ripple as if to give me a gentle squeeze “....I think this is much nicer.”
Seems as though the pale shrine maiden doesn’t have anything particularly lewd in mind at the moment- she’s just savoring the combined warmth of my body and the coals on the nearby grill. I can’t help but chuckle softly as I see the very tip of her forked tongue sticking out. Someone once told me that all lamia are capable of smelling with their tongue and Yuki is clearly enjoying the smell of the seasoned chicken, pork and beef sizzling on the grill.
“Yuki….you got a little something there….” I say, motioning to her chin. There was nothing there, but I correctly guessed that her tongue would find its way back into her mouth once she was done wiping.
“Oh...I’m sorry- is it gone now?”
She senses my eyes on her as she completes her task.
“Oh- my apologies. I must be quite a mess.” She says shyly.
“Nonsense- even as a mess, you still must be the most beautiful miko around for miles.”
That made her blush an even more alluring shade of pink.
Yuki was finished with her noodles and I had already made quick work of my grilled meat skewers- all that was left was some lukewarm tea.
It was just the two of us, snuggling under the small canopy of a food stall. I resisted the urge to pay our tab right away and take our leave. Whatever Lady Hisui’s announcement was, I had an uneasy feeling and I’m sure Yuki did as well.
Best to quietly enjoy a moment like this while we can.
The following afternoon, Yuki left for the temple ahead of me. After an uneasy wait following some work around the inn, I figured I should make my way to there to hear whatever it was that Lady Hisui needed to announce. Not surprisingly, it seemed like everyone else was already in the atrium area waiting for whatever Lady Hisui and her guests had to announce.
Around the corner from the atrium was a kitchen and small communal dining area- something I didn’t get to see very much of despite frequently visiting Yuki at the temple. I was drawn to the area by a savory smell.
Someone was in the kitchen, preparing lunch.
It was Hisui’s neice. I was wondering whether I should make my presence known or simply back away when she seemed to notice me.
Her right ear twitched and I knew I had been spotted even before she turned to face me.
“Hanta, right?” the younger Ryu called out, suddenly much more formal than she was last night. “Are you here for Aunty’s announcement?”
“Yeah….I figured whatever it was, I should be here with Yuki ‘cause I’m kind of curious myself.”
“Well, this is a pretty important notice we’re putting out, so the larger the audience, the better…” she pointed to an already-made bento.
“Take one if you like- Aunty insisted we make extra in case more people than we expected showed up for her announcement…..but it looks like that won’t be a problem.” she said.
Before me is a plateful of white rice, sliced and breaded pork cutlet and finely chopped cabbage and carrots.
"Hanta....what do you know about the Legend of Kiyohebi?" Yuwaku asked. The easygoing and flirtatious demeanor in Yuwaku’s voice from our introduction was gone.
"Doesn’t sound familiar."
"The legend says that centuries ago, a handsome young monk on his way to a distant monastery stopped by an inn to spend the night. Right away, the innkeeper's beautiful daughter was smitten with him. She introduced herself as Kiyo and lavished attention on him before she asked if she could be his bride."
"The monk, although flattered, was taken aback by the sudden request and told her 'No'. However, Kiyohebi thought if she was more persistent, she could eventually win the monk's affections. Slipping away from her parents' inn, she followed the monk as he resumed his journey, keeping a distance until he was getting ready to cross a river on a ferry.
“When he was getting ready to cross the Anchin river, he spotted Kiyo following him and paid the ferryman extra to leave without her. This infuriated Kiyo so much that she leapt into the river and started swimming after the monk, much to his surprise.”
I still had no idea where Yuwaku was going with this and waited for her to continue.
“To the monk’s astonishment, Kiyo had managed to swim to the other side of the river. However, when she emerged from the river he could see that she had the lower body of a giant serpent.”
Satisfied she had my attention, the blue-scaled Ryu continued.
“The young girl’s jealousy and avarice had transformed her into a monster- one that the monk she so desperately wanted fled at the very sight of her. He managed to get as far as a nearby monastery on the other side of the river. As he pleaded with the abbot to give him refuge, the other monks present caught sight of the monster pursuing him and quickly spirited him inside, hiding him under the monastery’s bell.”
“Now a formidable monster, Kiyo confronted the monastery’s abbot and demanded to know where her beloved monk had gone. The abbot and other monks pretended to have no idea who she was talking about, but she forced her way inside and began searching for him. After a few moments, she was certain that he was hiding under the bell.”
The azure dragoness inhaled sharply. For whatever reason, she really seemed to be getting into the story now.
“Kiyo coiled her body around the bell and sweetly beckoned for her precious monk to come out from hiding. However, he didn’t budge- which made her very angry. Frustrated, she repeatedly struck the bell with her serpentine tail and let loose a deafening ringing throughout the monastery. He still didn’t come out from beneath the bell…..this made Kiyo livid.”
“With the handsome monk still hiding under the bell, Kiyo inhaled and……”
The blue dragoness faltered.
“And she belched a brilliant blue flame whose heat was so intense that it melted the bell with him still hiding inside. Her beloved monk was killed instantly.”
“It’s said that she let out a ferocious, anguished scream before fleeing into the forest and-”
“Why exactly are you telling me this?” I cut her off.
“It was said that Kiyo would go on to become Kiyohebi, the mother of all Shirohebi.”
“But it’s just a legend, right? Shirohebi are just about the furthest thing from murderous.”
“While it is a legend, it’s said that it predates the ascent of the Demon Empress of the West. Even with her changes, Shirohebi still tend to be a creature ultimately governed by their passions no matter how well they conceal it at times.”
“Even so- how would that make her any different from any other mamono here?” I ask tersely. Truth be told, I found myself increasingly drawn to her shy and serene nature and thought she was unlike any other mamono.
“If you’re going to have any sort of relationship with one of her kind, I think it’s best you head into it with your eyes wide open.” Yuwaku merely shrugged.
How magnanimous of her.
Except it sounds an awful lot like she’s trying to scare me away from the shrine maiden lamia with that cautionary tale.
She looked as though she had more to say, but the two of us noticed an abrupt chill in the air. Before either one of us could comment on the drop in temperature, the door slid open. A beautiful woman with icy blue flesh almost hesitantly stuck her head through the doorway.
“It’s almost time, Lady Yuwaku.”
The younger Ryu wasn’t joking about fewer people than expected showing up. Besides Yuki and the other two miko I saw around the temple, it looked like it was me, another shirohebi in a white kimono and one other man.
Fuyu had both hands softly clasped around the arm of a muscular young man with a cleanly shaved head. It took me a moment, but I remembered him as one of the drummers in the Takio troupe at Shimo and Hiro's wedding reception.
The other Shirohebi was by herself and looked to be closer to Lady Hisui’s age, although like the Ryu in charge of this temple she appeared to be aging rather gracefully. She was looking around as though she was expecting someone else to join her.
My observation of the two unfamiliar faces was cut short when the Ryu who called for this gathering emerged from her chambers.
Lady Hisui was flanked by her niece and the Yuki Onna. Without any preamble, she spoke up in a very businesslike tone.
"As some of you already know, two of the neighboring prefectures have been without a presiding Ryu for quite some time. As a result, they are currently in the grip of a drought that- if left unchecked- will wipe out all of their crops and most likely trigger widespread famine."
Hisui looked around to make sure everybody was paying attention to her dire prediction.
"Now- myself, Lady Fubiki and Lady Yawaku have done some calculations. We not only have a chance to prevent these dire events from coming to fruition, but an opportunity to give all the adjacent prefectures enough water for as many as three growing seasons. However, this will require some sacrifices on your part."
This caused some quiet and uneasy murmuring among the gathered Shirohebi.
“Listen up!” the younger Ryu with the sapphire scales shouted, cutting through the whispers and growing chatter as Lady Hisui's announcement sank in. All eyes were on the pair of Ryu as Yawaku continued. "We have a plan in place, and we're quite optimistic about its chances of working, but....and I need to emphasise this.....it won't be easy."
"What is required of us?" a voice from the back of the room inquired.
It was Shimo.
"I will be getting to that shortly."
The more mature, green-scaled Ryu resumed addressing those of us assembled before her.
"Our plan requires building up a considerable snowpack for both the mountains and lower elevations. Lady Fubuki will be summoning strategically situated blizzards at frequent intervals to help the snow accumulation in the mountains. These will be strengthened by warm fronts that Lady Yawaku will be sending up from Awaniko. However, this in turn will require prolonged temperatures cold enough to drive any Shirohebi into a deep slumber, prefecture-wide and for the duration of the winter."
"Hisui-sama?" Fuyu asked.
"I do apologize..." Hisui said, her tone still businesslike but now downcast. "Unfortunately, there is no way to resolve this situation without all of you either leaving the prefecture or going into prolonged hibernation."
Hisui’s bombshell was met with stunned silence from the rest of the miko.
Damn it. If nobody else was going to ask, then I will.
"HOW prolonged?" I ask loudly.
I could hear one of the other miko quietly murmuring to Yuki as Hisui fielded my question.
"Late autumn to early spring, most likely" The Yuki Onna says softly, yet somehow loud enough for all of us to hear. "We must provide enough snow accumulation to take care of the agricultural needs of three different prefectures for at least a full growing season. Possibly more."
Yuki and all the other Shirohebi present looked rather uncomfortable as the Yuki-Onna spoke. It wasn’t my imagination- the Yuki Onna’s mere presence in the same room dropped the temperature a few degrees.
"Why can't the colder temperatures be limited to the hills?" Kori asked. If I didn't know any better, I'd swear the younger miko's jaw was clenched as she asked that.
"We would run the significant risk of producing insufficient quantities of snow for the task at hand and likely face the same situation next winter if not sooner." Fubuki said calmly.
“If we’re going to put you through this much trouble to begin with, we want it to be a more long-term solution.” the blue ryu clarified.
“The farmers who don’t get their water directly from the snowpack will still be able to use catchment for their crops or livestock.” Hisui added.
"Besides those of you gathered here, census records indicate that another 29 shirohebi residing throughout the prefecture." Yuwaku spoke up. "Before we can implement this course of action, we need to notify the other 29 of the situation they will be facing- I cannot emphasize this enough. Their options will be to either shelter in place at the temple with us or make arrangements to spend the winter elsewhere- preferably further south. Unfortunately, sheltering in place at their homes will NOT be an option for them."
Lady Hisui nodded solemnly.
"Now...." Yuwaku continued, looking up from the scroll and departing from her prepared remarks. "I do have some vacancies at my temple down in Awaniko, but they are limited to two."
My hand immediately shoots up to volunteer myself and Yuki for an all expenses paid at Yuwaku's warm tropical island temple for the winter. Before the younger, sapphire hued Ryu even notices, Yuki roughly grabs my arm and pulls it down.
"Hanta, no." she admonishes me quietly-but-sternly.
Yuwaku doesn't seem to notice the exchange between me and Yuki right away.
"Now I must warn you, the people of Awaniko consider pale serpents such as yourselves a good omen" she warns. "More so than many people here on the main islands. So one of the biggest occupational hazards down there will probably be the local children constantly asking if they can touch your scales for good luck."
Lady Hisui's niece seems to be doing a pretty good job of upselling a prolonged stay at her island temple, but it doesn't take a mind-reader to see Yuki's face and realize she's having none of it.
Seeing no takers right away, Yuwaku continues.
“Those interested in spending the winter at my temple can discuss this with me after our meeting.”
"Ah....Hisui-sama- what could those of us who stay here expect if we are unable to go elsewhere for the winter?" Kori asks. No doubt that was the question that was weighing on everyone else’s mind.
"With cooperation of some local merchants, we have secured some imported material that will be used to craft individual shelters for all of you throughout the winter." Hisui answers.
Imported material? Well now- that would explain why Hisui was so keen on meeting with a merchant who ran his own import-export business like Inken.
"It's just a matter of determining exactly how many will be staying at the temple this winter." Yuwaku continues. "According to the census I looked up, most of the other 29 Shirohebi reside within a day’s travel from the temple- whether it’s on foot or by boat. “We may not necessarily need enough material for all 29 if some of them make plans to go further south, but we’ll need to get a better idea of who plans on staying and who’s going.”
"Wh-what exactly are we supposed to tell them when we do show up?" Fuyu asks nervously.
"I'm glad you asked that!" Yuwaku says as she smacks a balled up, scaly fist into her open, scaly palm. "Auntie?"
Lady Hisui looked a little perturbed being addressed so informally in front of everyone, but continued.
"Tell them the truth. Be sure to mention that we shall be having this year's Harvest Festival the same as always- what I plan on doing is requesting their presence at the Festival as guests of honor....all of them.”
“Should we even be holding the Harvest Festival in light of this?” Kori asks.
Lady Hisui answered with a quick nod before continuing.
“Without a doubt. I would prefer if the harvest festival go on like always- but with one significant change.” she paused, making sure she had everyone’s attention. “I want this to be a celebration of all my miko- past and present. An opportunity for couples, families and individual miko alike to have fun and enjoy each other’s company before the long cold winter settles in. From there, we will go into greater detail regarding what is in store for them. After the festival, they can decide to either spend the winter here at our temple or proceed further south for the winter with some of the alms we raised from festivalgoers."
“What if they want to go back home?” Kori asks.
“That’s not an option- cooler temperatures mean discomfort and inconvenience for a Shirohebi. The temperatures we’ll most certainly be facing are a matter of life and death- I will not risk any of them dying of exposure.”
“But how are we expected both notify the other shirohebi and set up for the Festival?” Fuyu asks.
The girl had a point. As of now, it appeared that there were two miko on hand (perhaps four depending on Shimo’s availability and whether Yuki was still being ostracized by the Ryu) to help run affairs at the temple- three or four seemed to work most of the time. But under these circumstances, they would be spread way too thin.
“I’ve discussed this matter with the two other nearby temples. Lady Aoihi has agreed to send some of her miko to assist with the Festival preparations and Lady Fumiko said she’d make available some prizes for a drawing to be held once the Festival is underway.”
“Plus- we’re still many weeks away from the monsoon season on Awaniko- this gives me some time to help auntie and all of you out with some of the preparations.” the blue Ryu adds.
I wasn’t really paying attention to the closing remarks from either the Ryu or Yuki Onna anymore- I was dying to know why Yuki was so hasty to turn down a solution that could’ve avoided this problem altogether.
Despite the optimistic tone that Hisui and Yuwaku seemed to close on, it was difficult to shake this faint but persistent sense of dread.
However, I had questions of my own- mostly for Yuki.
"What was that about back there, Yuki?" I hiss impatiently. This could very well be the first time I'm openly upset with her and I do little to conceal it. "Lady Hisui's niece would've let us stayed at her temple this winter. Problem solved."
"Hanta- weren't you paying attention when they said that the last prefectural census indicated there were 29 other shirohebi who reside away from Hisui's.....our temple?"
"Yeah- what about it?"
"Do you think that all of those 29 are unmarried?"
"Probably not all of them......why?"
"Hanta, you don't suppose all 29 are childless?" her tone is cold and reproachful as she asks me this. Only she already knew the answer and was walking me towards it to prove a point.
"I....I guess not."
"Now Hanta.....I must ask you. Do you think it's fair that you and I should spend the winter in the comfort of Lady Yuwaku's temple while a mother and her daughter must take their chances by sheltering from the cold here?"
"But....Yuki- there's no way you can help everybody...."
Yuki froze, unable to believe what I actually just said. It took a moment for her to find her voice once again.
"How.....? How could you of all people say that, Hanta? Would you rather I would've had such an outlook when I found you injured and unresponsive in the forest?" the normally gentle lamia snapped tersely. This is easily the most agitated that I’ve ever seen her.
Oh shit- our first fight and it’s looking pretty ugly. Her words cut me to the very core, but she absolutely had a point.
"Yuki...." I began.
"I know that I won't always able to assist everyone in need, Hanta...." she said a little more calmly. "But in situations like these, I feel that my place is at Hisui-sama's temple with the others to do whatever I can."
"That's just it, though...." I sigh. "There aren't many situations like these, are there?"
"No- I’ve been at this temple longer than anyone else save for nee-san and Hisui-sama herself. I really do believe this is....without any sort of precedent." Yukihebi observes sadly.
As if to second this, Fuyu approaches with her new boyfriend in tow.
“What are we going to do, Yuki? This doesn’t sound good at all….” she says.
“I know….” Yuki says forlornly. “I don’t see a way out of this unless Hisui sama is able to-”
“Yoo hoo! Fuyu!!” another voice calls out across the room. It’s the older Shirohebi- she seems to be in remarkably good spirits despite the dire announcement from Lady Hisui.
“H...hello mother….” Fuyu stammers while fidgeting.
“I’m so glad I could make it today- it seems like I haven’t seen you in ages!” The mature shirohebi gushes as she makes her way over to the four of us. Just like I could sense the Yuki Onna’s chill from a distance, I could pick up a fragrance- something like hibiscus and incense- as she approached us.
Seemingly ignoring her daughter, her daughter’s boyfriend and Yuki, she reaches out and clasps my hands gently.
“So this is your little friend, eh Fuyu? Pleased to meet you- I’ve heard so many good things about you, young man. I’m so glad my little girl is no longer breaking out into a nervous rash whenever she talks to a boy….”
She’s squinting at me. Is she nearsighted? What should I say?
Before I can try and correct her, Fuyu speaks up.
“Over here, mom.” the exasperated miko says.
Her mother quickly pivots and makes her way over to the two of them, this time gently clasping the drummer’s hands as she leans in- apparently squinting once again.
“Ah! I see- Much better!” she says.
Thanks lady- I’m standing right here, you know.
On second though, she may not know.
“Koshu….” Fuyu says nervously. “This is my mother…”
“No need to be so formal! You can call me Kaouru!” the more mature Shirohebi gushes. “So how did you two meet again?”
“One of the other shrine maidens here had gotten married several weeks ago and I was a drummer in the takio troupe hired on as part of the entertainment.” Fuyu’s companion answered.
Kaoru’s hands hadn’t left Koshu’s body- instead of clasping his arms she was now feeling his arms.
“Oh my- such strong arms.” Kaouru gushes. “I bet you’re quite the performer- a young man with lots of stamina. Have you given my daughter a private performance…?” she follows her question up with a suggestive wink.
“I….I….” Koshu begins stuttering. Clearly he’s at a loss.
“Anyway- how’s father doing?” Fuyu asks, desperate to change the subject.
“He’s the same as always- we haven’t given up on trying to give you a little sister. Why just this morning, we-”
“MOM!” Fuyu nearly shouted.
“Don’t be so embarrassed, dear.” her mother says after letting out a demure giggle. “After all, that’s how you were conceived one steamy spring night when your father and I sought shelter from a sudden downpour-”
“Mom! Koshu doesn’t need to be hearing this and neither do I….”
“But even after all these years, your father may not have a green thumb, but he’s certainly skilled with his hands and quite good at taking care of my most precious rose petals….” Kaouru said giddily.
Not too surprisingly, Fuyu is mortified and this Koshu fellow looks as though he wants to bolt for the door. I glance over at Yuki and the girl is clearly torn between being amused or embarrassed on Fuyu’s behalf.
“Mother...please….” Fuyu almost pleaded.
“Ah! Yuki- I heard you turned a lot of heads at your sister’s wedding!” Fuyu’s mother said, suddenly turning to Yukihebi. I wasn’t sure if she was referring to the nervous lamia’s public speaking or our little moonlight tryst that Hisui and Shimo walked in on. “Looks as though I’m going to have to congratulate her and maybe give the newlywed some advice.”
“I’m sure she would appreciate that.” Fuyu said to her.”I believe that’s her over there…” she pointed to Yuki’s sister as she was talking to Lady Hisui and her niece.
“Well then- I’ll leave you two lovebirds be.” Kaouru said as she excused herself.
I’m 99% certain she was addressing her daughter.
Still- as awkward as that encounter was, there was a middle aged shirohebi who still looked terrific and enjoyed an active sex life with her husband.I was furtively glancing at Yuki, wondering if that was something typical of all shirohebi or perhaps Fuyu’s mother was an outlier.
“I’ve never been so embarrassed in my life…” Fuyu lamented.
“But still- it’s nice that your parents live in the same city as the temple. You get to see them more often.” Yuki pointed out.
“Yeah- well….as you can see, it’s kind of a double-edged sword.” she sighed before turning to her boyfriend. “Koshu...I’m so sorry- I promise I’ll make it up to you somehow.”
The drummer remained speechless, although he seemed to nod in the affirmative.
“Hanta- I need to have a few words with Kori and Fuyu in private.” Yuki said. “Why don’t we meet up after lunch?”
I was a little disappointed, but understood given the gravity of the Ryu’s announcement.
“Sweetie- we need to run something by one of the Ryu, but-” Fuyu stopped mid-sentence to give the strapping young drummer a chaste peck on the cheek. “I’ll make time for you later on today- I promise.” she said sweetly as she held up an extended pinky on her right hand.
Me and the drummer are left to stand there in awkward silence as the trio of serpentine miko were in a huddle on the other side of the room. I’m not quite sure what I should say- or even if I should say anything to him after that encounter with Fuyu’s mom.
Yuki and Fuyu took their leave to talk with Kori- and I could see that Shimo broke away from the pair of Ryu to join her sister and the other miko.
It looked as though the younger Ryu was getting ready to leave and I still sensed she wasn’t giving me the whole story behind the tale of the murderous Shiohebi who killed her crush in a fit of rage. I decided I should probably further question her about it, although my tone shouldn’t be too confrontational with both Yuki and Hisui present in the same room.
However, before I could even approach her, the small group of shrine maidens descend upon her, each of them looking as though they’re eager to ask her something. I decided to keep a little bit of distance, but was still close enough to hear what they had to say to one another.
"Lady Yuwaku...." Fuyu nervously begins. "We were wondering- is it at all possible for you to accommodate three guests at your temple this winter?"
"Why do you ask?" the younger Ryu does little to hide her impatience as she eyes the trio of shrine maidens assembled before her.
"We discussed the matter amongst ourselves and decided...." Yukihebi begins. She pauses for a moment as she's locked in Yuwaku's icy glare.
"All of us have decided that if a family shows up seeking shelter, they should be the ones who will get to stay at your temple in the south islands for the winter."
The sapphire-hued Ryu's expression softened considerably as she heard Yukihebi out.
"I suppose if the child is small enough, I could be able to accommodate a family of three at my temple with a minimum of difficulty. Did you have anyone specific in mind?"
"Not yet, but we'll have a better idea once we notify the other Shirohebi elsewhere in the prefecture of the situation at hand."
“Do you know of anyone in particular you feel should spend the winter at my temple?” Yuwaku asked the three of them.
Yuki shook her head ‘no’. It seems she has rather quickly become the unofficial spokeswoman for the small group of serpentine miko, with Shimo now joining the group.
“Hiro and I just returned from our honeymoon- I think it wouldn’t be right to take that space away from someone more deserving.” Shimo spoke up. “Besides- as a captain in the town guard, husband has obligations here and I cannot bear to be away from his side for very long…”
“Mother may embarrass me at every opportunity, but I know she’d want a younger family to be the one to spend the winter at your temple, Yuwaku-sama.” Fuyu said, bowing deferentially. “I’d love to spend time with Koshu down there, but….we just met and such a request might make things unnecessarily awkward between the two of us.”
“Even if I could go, I’d have no one to accompany me. I fear that I would simply get in the way, even if you could accomodate two others.” Kori morosely announced.
“Y-you would do something like this for complete strangers?” the younger Ryu asked. She was addressing all of them, but her eyes were on Yuki.
“Of course- it’s part of our nature to help those in need. Your aunt taught us that.” Yuki said.
“I see….” the increasingly shocked Ryu replied before regaining her composure. “Well….we have until the festival to decide who should accompany me. I’m sure we all will have a better idea of who should go by then.”
As much as I wanted to smooth things out with Yuki, I knew that she still had plenty to discuss with her sister and the other shrine maidens. Bento in hand, I calmly sat down on the walkway outside of one of the temple’s anterooms ready to tuck in.
However, no sooner than I started eating I heard what sounded like a door opening on the other side of the paper-thin wall and Yuki conversing with her sister and the other miko.
"You seem to like him enough, Fuyu.
"But I'm worried he'll stray from me this winter."
"That's a valid concern. I mean he IS a travelling musician." Shimo spoke up.
“What will you do?” Kori asked.
"Well…..why can't I just use my blue flames to keep him from straying?" Fuyu asked casually.
In that moment, I was horrified. Infidelity is one thing, but to be so casually talking about afflicting someone with the serpentine maiden's legendary blue fire curse because he MIGHT be unfaithful at some point in the future?
"Fuyu!" a stern voice chided. It was Shimo.
"Don't say such things- even if it's in jest."
"Why's that?" Fuyu asks, genuinely curious.
"Just don't...." Shimo admonishes.
It sounds as though that will be the end of the discussion until Yuki softly speaks out.
"Do you know why they call it the Blue Fire Curse, Fuyu?"
"Because the man feels like he's burning up whenever he's away from his beloved- right? The flames take on a bluish tint the more in love the maiden is."
"That's only partially correct."
Fuyu pauses, waiting for Yuki to continue.
"The man will feel as though he's been doused in flames whenever he's separated from the one who placed the Blue Fire Curse on him."
"But the curse on her beloved can be lifted at any time, right?"
"That is true. However, 'love' has nothing to do with it. Even though she could lift the blue fire curse at any time, the man is still at the mercy of someone insecure and petty enough to bring such an affliction down upon someone who she claims to love. In fact, the Shirohebi who places the curse on him will almost certainly never be loved again."
"Wh-what do you mean?"
"If you use the curse, you won't really have a husband or boyfriend who loves you anymore. You'll have a simpleminded rutting beast who's acting on his most basest of instincts. Even after the curse is lifted, she'll be left to wonder if her man stays with her because she is truly loved by him or is simply fearful of having the curse brought down upon him again. That's no way to go through life, either for the man or one of our brethren."
"Agreed." Shimo spoke up. "I would hate to see my noble and handsome Hiro irrevocably changed in such a manner."
"Be honest Yuki- haven't you ever thought of using it yourself?"
"My lover is a foreigner, as well as an itinerant woodsman and hunter who likes to drink and apparently tried making sport out of bedding other youkai before we had even met." Yuki sighed. "If I were to give in to the temptation of using the blue fire curse, it most likely would've happened already."
Upon hearing that, I heaved a quiet sigh of relief.
"But what can I do to prevent Koshu from straying?" Fuyu asked.
"Simply be yourself, I suppose. Be the best, most loving, most sensual, most devoted, most tender you that you're capable of being and he should remain forever drawn to you no matter what obstacles the two of you face. If that isn't good enough for him, then perhaps you're better off with someone else."
There was several moments of silence as Yuki’s words sank in.
“My baby sister has certainly grown…” Shimo mused.
“Wise words from little bookworm Yuki.” the younger miko tittered.
“Fuyu…..we weren’t supposed to call her that to her face.”
"Besides, Yuki...." Fuyu intoned lecherously. "He seems quite eager to be wrapped by your body."
The pendulum had dramatically swung from extremely disturbed to extremely aroused as I could hear Yuki let out a squeaky and embarrassed yelp. Although I couldn't see her or her silhouette on the other side of the wall, I was confident her hands were over her mouth.
"Yeah, Yuki...." another voice spoke up. It was the somewhat quieter shirohebi miko who went by the name Kori. "Come on! Tell us- how far have you two gotten?"
"Th-that's none of your concern!" she stammers defensively.
"Ho ho....my little sister is blushing so. No need to be shy! You're among friends and family here...." Shimo pressed.
"Onee-san.....y-you were there that night....." Yuki answers timidly.
"What's she talking about?"
"Ara ara....she's talking about ducking out of the wedding reception for a little moonlight tryst with her foreign boyfriend, isn't that right Yuki....?"
"N-nothing happened, I swear....."
"I wouldn't exactly say it was 'nothing'. What was that you called it, dear sister? 'Honeysuckle'....?" Shimo teased.
"Honey Fountain." Yurki murmured shyly.
"Mmm....well- whatever you choose to call it, I took inspiration on our honeymoon. Hiro went from my tall, strong rock of a husband to a quivering, gasping mess who simply melted in my coils."
This elicited a chorus of lascivious giggling from the other Shirohebi, save for Yuki.
"And the best part is, I'm confident that wasn't what got Hisui-sama so worked up now. In fact....." Shimo continued. If I didn't know any better, I could've sworn her voice was getting closer.
"Hisui-sama tends to be rather lenient, so I could only imagine it was something particularly ecchi you two were caught doing where she wanted you out of her sight for a couple of days. I should properly ask your straw-haired little foreigner boyfriend what you two were up to the next time I see him."
Shit- she IS getting closer. Yuki's sister is going to find me and almost certainly jump to the worst possible conclusion.
“He seems like the sort who would be bragging about whatever it was you two did…”
Damn it- she’s on the other side of the wall and most likely knows I’m already there. Time to make myself scarce.
Before I can get up to leave, something punches through the paper wall and whistles by my ear.
Shit- I stumble a few steps back after realizing that it's a pair of shiruken. Yuki's sister is throwing knives at me!
While I'm getting a good look at them embedded in a beam just across the hallway, something much larger tears through the already punctured paper wall and coils around my neck.
The last thing I hear is a triumphant "Gotcha!" before I’m dragged backwards through the paper and balsa-wood wall, leaving a human-sized hole in it.
Damn it. I'm not going anywhere- and I can't even cry out in surprise with her tail wrapped so tightly around my throat.
"Wow- Shimo-senpai.....where did you learn to do that!?" I can hear Kori ask, awestruck.
"A little something my dear husband taught me." Shimo brags as I'm struggling for breath. "As a newlywed peace officer, my darling Hiro isn't completely at ease until he knows that I can take certain precautions to defend myself."
That's all well and good, but all four of them seem rather oblivious to the fact that Shimo is still choking the crap out of me while explaining her nifty new throwing blade skills.
"Hanta?" Yuki gasps, seemingly shocked and disappointed.
Figures she would be the first one to address me in this awkward position.
"What do you think you're doing?" Shimo asks me reproachfully as her tail eases up. “Don’t you know it’s rude to listen in on a woman discussing the most precious and intimate moments with her beloved husband?”
"What do we have here?" Yuki asked suddenly. "If I didn't know any better, I'd say it was a sneaky little rat.". If anything, she sounds more upset than Shimo.
"I was just looking to get a bite to eat. Even sneaky little rats have to eat."
Judging from the glares I was getting from her sister and the other two, they weren't satisfied with my reply.
"Honest! I was just having my bento outside the door- great pork as always, I don’t know if one of you made it- when I heard all of you talking. I really wasn't sure if I should've just announced myself, leave or joined in the discussion." I blurt out as Shimo lets up with her tail. "What the hell are you doing throwing knives at me, anyway?"
"In light of hearing the news about intruders clandestinely making their way into the temple, I figured certain precautions were prudent. Besides....I wasn't throwing them AT you, I was throwing them past you to get you to reveal your whereabouts....it was a feint that worked beautifully, I might add."
“I’m very cross with you right now, Hanta….” Yuki said with her arms folded across her considerable chest. “Sister- why don’t you and the others go on ahead and see if you can find Lady Hisui- I obviously need to give Hanta a good talking to.”
The trio of other shrine maidens hesitated.
“My lover, my responsibility.” she followed up.
This seems to persuade Shimo, Fuyu and Kori as they took their leave.
Satisfied they were gone, Yuki turned to me.
“Hanta- you seem to have a unique talent for angering my sister.”
Whatever I had to say, Yuki wasn’t quite ready to listen.
"You know what serpents do with sneaky little rats, don't you?" she scowls.
Her miko's top managed to slip a little further open.
"Well....at this point I'm hoping that it’s something that involves hand-holding and possibly other outward displays of affection." I say.
She scowls a little.
“We wrap our bodies around those sneaky little rats nice and tight so that they have nowhere to go.” she says, coiling her lower body around me before gently running her fingers through my hair.
“Then...we cut off the air.” her hands were on the back of my head, gently guiding towards her ample bosom.
"I want you to know, I’m not mad at you, Hanta. I believe you and it’s not as though I was telling Fuyu and nee-san anything that I didn’t want you to hear for yourself at some point.” I heard her tell me as I felt the warmth of the fabric strained by her breasts against my cheek.
“For the record, turns out ‘bedding other youkai’ is a sport I wasn’t particularly good at.” I pout meekly with my face mere inches of the beautiful serpent girl’s bust.
"That's it. Your are going to get such a smothering, my little sneaky rat!" she harrumphs with a mix of both authentic and mock exasperation as her hands more forcefully press on the back of my head and into her cleavage.
“I’m back- almost forgot my coin……...purse.” another voice spoke up as she made her way back into the room.
It was Shimo. Again.
"Sister....you're just rewarding him at this point." Shimo sighed upon seeing us.
"Ah- but you forget, nee-san. I know his weaknesses."
Damn it- she's right. Yuki's constricting a little tighter now and I'm trying my hardest to conceal my arousal.
"Let me handle this...." she said confidently to her sister.
After a momentary pause, Yuki's sister looked as though she was about to excuse herself.
“I’ll just give my little sister and her sneaky pervert foreigner boyfriend some privacy.” Shimo said on her way out.
Suddenly the door slid open.
“I’m almost certain that I saw her in here with the others, Hiro….we discussed the matter a bit earlier, but I’m sure she can-” Lady Hisui stopped mid-sentence.
“Ah! Husband! Hisui-sama.” Shimo said, doing little to conceal the shock in her voice as she bowed deferentially to both of them.
Yuki very quickly uncoiled herself from around me and adjusted her kosode top. The sensation of the beautiful shrine maiden lamia hastily unwrapping herself was becoming all too familiar in the fairly short time I knew her.
“What brings you here, my beloved?” Shimo asks. Hiro doesn’t seem to be too distracted by his new sister-in-law wrapping me up in her coils.
“Lady Hisui told me the news. Dearest Shimo- is there anything that I can do to help?” he asked.
“Oh...well….yes- this truly was most tragic and unfortunate, wasn’t it?” Shimo says melodramatically. She seemed be taking Lady Hisui’s announcement in stride right up until her husband showed up. “Perhaps an afternoon in your loving arms will help ease the burden of this announcement….”
Clearly she’s trying to milk the Ryu’s bad news about the upcoming winter into more quality time with her new husband.
“Very well then- anything you need, I won’t hesitate to provide it for you Dearest Shimo.” he said, his tone serious and businesslike as he gently led his wife from the room by her arm.
Yuki, Hisui and myself watched Shimo’s dramatic performance with a sort of quiet awe as the two of them left.
However, Yukihebi was then caught off guard when the ryu wordlessly wrapped her up in a tight embrace.
“H….Hisui-sama?” Yuki was bewildered.
“It was my intention to have you back all along- I just wanted to give you a few days to reflect upon your actions earlier….” the beautiful dragon said, her voice ever-so-slightly tinged with sorrow. “But none of that seems to matter now. Yuki- I’m so glad you’re here today- although I wish it was under much different circumstances.”
“What do you need me to do?” Yuki asked.
“I will need you to notify only one other Shirohebi, but she lives quite a ways away…” the Ryu explained as she hands Yuki a scroll and two slips of paper with unfamiliar markings.
“What is this, Hisui-sama?”
“These are ofuda that you must apply on their dwelling once you get to your destination.”
Yuki looked as though she recognized the markings, but I was at a loss.
“What do they do?” I ask, not caring whether it was Yuki or Lady Hisui who answered my query.
“They’re to ward off intruders.” Yuki said, not looking away from the talismans.
“Those will also make it much easier for me to find their dwelling from a distance once winter sets in.” Hisui adds.
“And the scroll?” I ask, nodding towards the item in Yukihebi’s right hand.
“It’s a letter or introduction, of sorts….” the Ryu explained.
“Or you could think of it as a promissory note.”
“According to the census, the furthest shirohebi resides in a post town along the Path of the Wise Serpent, which is two days away from the temple by foot.”
“Path of the wise serpent?”
“The Central Mountain Path….it connects the imperial capital with some of the other cities further south. It was built so that the Daimyo’s couriers could quickly deliver his edicts to subordinates and regional governors in other cities” Hisui said.
“It’s sometimes known by different names in each region it passes through.” Yuki added.
“But Yuki will need lodgings for at least one night each way.”
“You’re sending her so far away? Why…?” I ask, suddenly deflated.
“Because I know that I can trust her to carry out her duties without hesitation”
Yuki tried stifling a little grin at the Ryu’s open praise for her.
“The note identifies Yuki as my emissary and requests that any Ryokan or Onsen along the Path of the Wise Serpent that can accommodate her for no charge while she carries out her duties will receive blessings from this temple.”
“I see….” It was beginning to sink in that I’d be without the pleasure of Yuki’s company for several days at a minimum. But given the circumstances that Yuki and the others would be facing, it seemed more than a little selfish to be pouting about being lonely for awhile.
The note seems like it would lend itself to some potential abuse, although neither Lady Hisui or Yuki really seemed dishonest enough to do something like that.
“Oh….also….” Hisui added as an afterthought. “The request also applies to anyone who might be accompanying Yuki.”
“So Shimo’s going with her?” I asked.
Hiro and Lady Husui shook her head ‘no’. “Shimo along with Fuyu’s mother already volunteered to notify other Shirohebi within the city of the situation at hand.” Yuki’s brother-in-law clarified.
“What about Kori or Fuyu?”
“Kori will be spending the next few days spreading the news to the villages along the coast north of here. Fuyu will be heading south.”
“So you’re going to send Yuki out on her own…?”
“On the contrary- I’d only be comfortable sending her such a distance if she only had a strong, strapping young man to accompany her.”
It took a moment for me to realize that Lady Hisui was talking about me.
“Wait a second- what about my job?”
“I’ve already discussed this- Your employer seemed far more receptive to you missing some work once I offered him additional firewood to compensate for his shortage of labor.”
“So my worth is now being measured in firewood?” I protest.
“You should be flattered, considering the kind of weather we’ll be in for. Besides- I have a feeling I have you to thank for the rather large hole in the wall.” Hisui was now smirking as I tried stammering a coherent explanation for what just happened. “Accompany my miko on this task and I’ll overlook the damage you wrought on my temple…”
Damn- the dragon lady is playing hardball.
Still- how am I supposed to decline an offer like that?